Monthly Archives: October 2015

Spooky! Beware of Scripted Education Debates…

October 27, 2015

How can you tell that the 2015 election is coming, and the 2016 one is not far off? By counting all of the anti-union opinion pieces and editorials floating around, of course.

Case in point: the Sunday, October 25 Opinion section of the Minneapolis StarTribune prominently featured a rail against “fundamentalist” teachers unions and their allies, written by former fundamentalist (by birth, we are told) and current “progressive” proponent of education reform, Lynnell Mickelsen.

Mickelsen’s piece, titled “Political rigidity? The left has it too,” seeks to rip teachers unions and the Democrats that support them–unquestioningly, of course–for, yawn, being, double yawn, opposed to anything that challenges their union-loving worldview. 

Still awake? Good, there’s more.

Mickelsen stirringly provides a list of why teachers union supporters (because that’s what they are, of course–nothing more, nothing less) are like fundamentalists. Mostly, it boils down to this: teachers unions and their blind followers are narrow-minded and simplistic, hate change, are old and racist, and will do anything to destroy charter schools.

Here’s an example, from Mickelsen’s piece (capitalization pattern is hers):

“Teachers’ unions are basically claiming Public Schools Are Between A Union and Its District, so any change in this tradition — i.e., charter schools — is an attempt to destroy public education.”

Mickelsen, who is an entertaining writer and a fellow education and school board meeting devotee, also decries the way Minnesota’s state teachers union, Education Minnesota, shamelessly funds Democratic candidates and thus exercises mind control over the party faithful:

Education Minnesota is the largest contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. It sets the tone and parameters of our education debates, which, among elected Democrats, are now predictably rigid and scripted — and this concerns a program that consumes 42 percent of the state’s operating budget, affects hundreds of thousands of children and has shamefully racialized results.

Speaking of “predictably rigid and scripted” education debates, Mickelsen’s piece originally showed up on former U.S. Department of Education employee Peter Cunningham’s blog, Education Post.

Education Post was launched just one year ago, with an impressive $12 million in cold, hard, conversation-starting cash. The goal? Providing a space, funded by old billionaire white guys like Eli Broad, to have a “better” conversation about education and how it should be done for poor children of color.

The bummer? It has since struggled to attract readers, leading Cunningham to recently send an email blast to his supporters, advising them on how to Tweet together and otherwise act as a united front:

When we all start sharing together more consistently, we’ll send a strong signal to our followers and friends, the media and the blogosphere, that we want to see more stories that show the positive difference we are making in the lives of children.

There it is! The “sharing together more consistently” thing! Just a few days before Mickelsen’s piece comparing union supporters to fundamentalists hit the fan, Cunningham published a near replica, called “The Best Hope for Teachers Unions is…Reform.”

Cunningham’s pro-“get tough” reform piece appeared on both his Huffington Post site and on Education Post, in a coordinated campaign sort of way.

I’m not sure if the two were comparing notes, but Cunningham’s piece strongly resembles Micklesen’s. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case, both pieces harp on remarkably similar (and familiar) points of view: charter schools are amazing, teachers unions are toxic and antiquated, and school choice is the yellow brick road to redemption.

Cunningham’s piece nicely sets the union-bashing stage for Mickelsen’s, through claims such as these:

Charter opponents like to label education leaders who are empowering families’ right to choose as “privatizers.” In their dictionary, public means “union-controlled” and any variation is the enemy.

And here is a similar snippet from Mickelsen’s piece:

In the union narrative, reformers aren’t just wrong about educational policy — they must have evil intent. So reformers are typically cast as vague “corporatists” hellbent on the equally vague profiteering from or privatizing of public schools.

Okay, I’m starting to see a rigid, scripted debate forming….

Here’s another tidbit from Cunningham’s post:

Teacher unions, who need unionized teachers and dues in order to exist, are fighting desperately to convince parents to stay with the traditional, district-run schools. But rather than appealing to parents on the strength of the education that traditional schools offer, their strategy primarily focuses on limiting funding for charters,capping their growth or organizing their teachers to join a union.

To quote Mickelsen’s piece, “I could keep listing common traits, but you get the idea.”

In short, unions are really, really bad, charter schools are really, really good, and anyone who disagrees with either of these points of view is a “fundie” not worth listening to.

In contrast, here are a couple of paragraphs worth considering, from New York professor Christopher Bonastia’s 2015 article, “The Racist History of the Charter School Movement”:

By all appearances, charters will remain on the educational landscape for the foreseeable future. While charter skeptics can’t merely wish them away, they can push for greater accountability—after all, isn’t this the whole point of charters? Anyone who blindly accepts that competition will improve education for students in charters and traditional public schools alike should remember that other articles of faith about the market—like cutting taxes on the rich will make all of our yachts and rafts rise—have proven illusory.

…There is no magic elixir that will fix our educational system. Of course, we should continue to be open to fresh ideas about improving school organization, teaching and learning. But if we continue to ignore important historical lessons about the dangerous consequences of educational privatization and fail to harness our desire to plunge headlong into unproven reform initiatives, we may discover that the cure we so lovingly embraced has made the patient sicker.

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Minneapolis Public Schools: All Reading Horizons Materials Will Be Pulled

October 21, 2015

In the wake of continued public protest, the Minneapolis Public Schools has definitively pulled all Reading Horizons materials from the district’s K-2 classrooms.

District communications staff sent out a press release this afternoon, announcing the decision.

While still championing the need for “foundational skills,” the announcement also seems to acknowledge a frequently voiced demand for more authentic, meaningful community engagement:

In the coming weeks, a Request for Proposal will be completed and the district will begin soliciting proposals for a new fundamental skills curriculum. Community members, parents and teachers will be integral in the selection of a new curriculum, and more details on process changes will be released in the coming weeks.

When and how this will happen is yet to be determined.

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Reading Horizons in Minneapolis: Full Implementation Ahead, Despite School Board Action

October 20, 2015


That is the word reverberating through text messages, emails, and Facebook posts today, among those closely following the trajectory of Reading Horizons’ troubling spin through the Minneapolis Public Schools.

After months of teacher and community-led protest, the Minneapolis school board voted, on October 13, to cancel the district’s deal with Reading Horizons, purveyor of a shocking set of “Little Books,” and a phonics curriculum some find invaluable.

On October 20, just one week after watching Reading Horizons get shot down by school board members, Minneapolis Public Schools’ Director of Elementary Education, Amy Jones, sent this message to the district’s elementary ed literacy specialists:

Good morning,

We are moving forward with Reading Horizons implementation this year while we start the search for another foundational skills program. It is in the best interest of our students and at the direction of Interim Superintendent Goar that we continue with full implementation.

Every K-2 classroom teacher, plus gr 3 classroom teachers in priority sites should already be providing Reading Horizons instruction for 20-30 minutes daily as part of the literacy block. 

Please check in with K-2 (3 priority) teachers to see what type of support they need in their implementation.

Given the Board’s resolution from Oct. 13 there will be a few changes as we move through this year.

#1 We will not be working with the RH implementation coaches in the future as we have discontinued our contract. However, we will continue to provide coaching through our literacy specialists and elementary T&L team. If you have implementation questions or require support, please reach out to them.

#2 We will be moving forward with a Reading A-Z subscription for each site which can be used for decodable texts aligned to Reading Horizons. Information on how to order the books from the copy center will be shared with literacy specialists. 

#3 We will not be utilizing the online RH software.

#4 We will be replacing the white board markers, which were found to be defective. New sets will be sent out mid-November.

We will also talk about this in on Friday at PD, but feel free to send me any questions and I will do my best to answer them.

Thank you for your work and patience.

Amy Jones

Director of Elementary Education

Teaching and Learning Dept.


Minneapolis Public Schools


Was the board’s 7-2 vote to cancel the Reading Horizons contract a mere formality, and not a directive? Several board members–in particular Nelson Inz, who wrote the resolution that was passed, Siad Ali, Rebecca Gagnon, and Tracine Asberry–seemed to agree with the hoards of protesters that filled the meeting room that doing business with Reading Horizons actually was not in the “best interests of our students.” 

Jones’ email is actually the third admin-level message to come out since the board’s decision.

The first came from Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president, Lynn Nordgren, on Wednesday, October 14–just after the board meeting. Here is a condensed version of Nordgren’s lengthy email:

Dear Colleagues,

While it is critical that we have high quality materials for teaching reading, and while there are those who are finding great results with Reading Horizons, we feel we must recommend that further business with Reading Horizons must be stopped. The moral high road has to come first in light of what families and community have expressed and because we cannot continue to marginalize those who have been marginalized throughout time – even if the materials have been “cleansed”. Our equity policy must be honored – we must walk our talk. However, we do not want to leave teachers high and dry. They have been without good materials/resources for too long. Therefore, this is the series of steps we believe the district should take:

1. Stop doing any further business with Reading Horizons. If possible, get a refund.
2. Allow teachers to choose to continue to use RH until a new literacy program is adopted. RH should not be mandatory, however. It should be a professional decision to use or not.
3. Immediately begin a transparent, thorough, and inclusive process for selecting a new literacy program. Use available research about which reading/literacy programs are deemed the best.
Vet every option deeply with the many teachers who will be using the new materials. Include community and parents throughout the process. Adopt a process that can be used for all materials, curriculum, and assessments now and in the future.
4. Ensure all classrooms have adequate materials/resources – no matter what the subject area. Ensure teachers have adequate time to plan the next day’s work with students. It does not matter how good the curriculum is if teachers do not have time to plan engaging lessons and gather needed resources.
5. Apologize and move forward knowing this will not ever happen again.

We understand some of you will not agree with these recommendations. It really came down to being able to move past the controversy and do the right thing ethically but also ensure you have what you need to be successful with students. In the end, it is up to school district leadership to determine the next steps following what happened at the school board on Tuesday night.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. Once again, you have shown how incredibly knowledgeable, skilled and caring you are. I am honored to be your president.


Lynn Nordgren
MFT 59

Nordgren’s email clearly leaves the door open for Reading Horizons to be used, but says it should not be mandatory.

Then, Goar sent a message to staff on Monday, October 19. While Goar’s email indicates a desire to push for more “foundational literacy skills,” it doesn’t say Reading Horizons will continue to be “fully implemented,” against the wishes of the school board and all of those who organized against the district’s relationship with the company:

Sent: Monday, October 19, 2015 11:25 AM
Subject: Update regarding contract with Reading Horizons

Dear Principals and Teachers,

At the October 13th meeting, the Board of Education passed a resolution terminating the district’s contract with Reading Horizons, a vendor of literacy curricula. As you know, supplemental materials provided with a foundational skills curriculum we purchased proved to contain offensive and racist stereotypes and were returned.

At the meeting, I acknowledged it was a failure of people and process that brought us to this point. I take full responsibility for these failures and I sincerely apologize for the pain and challenges that have resulted.  I am committed to fixing the way we select and purchase curriculum so this never happens again. Now it’s time to look to the future and determine next steps.

My priority going forward is to have as little impact as possible on our students’ learning. I know you all share my concern for the reading challenges too many of our children face. We need to have a transition strategy to avoid leaving classrooms without essential fundamental reading skills tools. Children need strong reading skills to be college and career ready.

The Board of Education decided that the contractual relationship with Reading Horizons needed to end based on policy violations during the selection of the curriculum. I fully respect this decision and will direct the selection of a replacement curriculum utilizing a vigorous process that will thoroughly evaluate effectiveness, cultural appropriateness and will include input from our community.  

In the meantime, we will continue to utilize the foundational skills to support our core literacy curriculum, Good Habits, Great Readers. We will keep everyone posted on the search for a replacement curriculum. We will find and approve a replacement as quickly as possible while ensuring the integrity of the process.

Thank you for your patience as we go through this transition, and for your commitment to the students of MPS.

Thank you.

Michael Goar

Interim Superintendent

What happened, then, between October 19 and October 20 that caused MPS to again try to insist that all K-2 (and 3, in high priority schools) teachers use Reading Horizons’ materials, for the same amount of time and in the same manner? (This is an odd move for a district that keeps touting “autonomy” as one of its key gap-closing strategies.)

And just who is in charge here?

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Reading Horizons may go down on policy violations

October 13, 2015

Push has finally come to shove, and tonight, at the regularly scheduled Minneapolis school board meeting, a resolution regarding Reading Horizons will be presented to the public.

This is monumental. I don’t know exactly what the resolutions will say, but my guess is Reading Horizons will be shown the door, even though the Minneapolis Public Schools has already spent over $1 million on the Utah company. 

I have heard that Reading Horizons’ CEO was scheduled to appear at tonight’s board meeting, with the intention that he would apologize to Minneapolis employees and families, over the offensive and utterly confounding “Little Books” his company packaged up and sold to MPS.

Now, ominously, sources say the CEO will be at the meeting, but will not be publicly addressing anyone. 

If Reading Horizons gets sent back to Salt Lake City, it won’t be because of “Lazy Lucy” or the company’s apparent belief that Christopher Columbus discovered America, although that is reason enough in the eyes of many who’ve been tracking this story.

Instead, it will most likely be because MPS employees appear to have violated numerous policies regarding the Reading Horizons deal.

Here are two of the most obvious potential violations, committed in what MPS officials have described as a rush to provide explicit phonics instruction to every K-2 student in the district:

1304 Equity and Diversity

I. Purpose: “Every student deserves a respectful learning environment in which their

racial and ethnic diversity is valued and contributes to successful academic outcomes.

Minneapolis Public Schools is committed to identifying and correcting practices and

policies that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all forms…”

“Adult behaviors must not contribute to achievement gaps or create barriers to success.”

II. Definitions: “”Institutional racism” means the collective failure of a public or private

organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of

their race, color, culture or ethnic origin which can be seen or detected in practices,

processes, systems, attitudes and behavior. It looks beyond individual acts of prejudice

to the systemic biases that may be built into institutions. These systemic biases

discriminate against and disadvantage people of color through unwitting prejudice,

ignorance, thoughtlessness or racial stereotyping.”

III. G. “The District shall promote the diversification of its vendor and supplier corps in

accordance with law and district policy.”

IV. I. “MPS Board of Directors, Superintendent and employees will work with students

and families to identify barriers to achievement and opportunities for academic success”

And this one:

3300 A Purchasing Principles and Responsibilities 
II. A. 6. All purchases of good [sic] and services shall consider the advantage of 
improving the district’s ability to do business with diverse vendors or providers, and the 
ability to engage the Minneapolis community in doing business with the district. Diversity 
of subcontractors and suppliers shall be considered under this value as well. 
IV. A. All employees of the District charged with making purchases of goods and services 
on behalf of the District shall follow the district procedures, and all applicable law and 
district policies for such purchases. Willful failure to do so may result in disciplinary action up
to and including termination of employment.

Here is, perhaps, further evidence of a purchasing policy violation. A Minneapolis parent requested a copy of the “Exhibit A” addendum to the purchase agreement between MPS and Reading Horizons. Emails between the parent and the district’s data request office indicate that district employees initially could not locate Exhibit A in their system, but eventually found it.

The document raised new alarm bells with the parent who requested it, for two reasons:  1) it was not signed by a Minneapolis employee, and 2) it looks like MPS has committed to a five-year deal with Reading Horizons, worth what appears to be $2.3 million, overall.

These two policies, alone, would seem to provide enough ammunition for school board members looking for a  clean way out of the Reading Horizons disaster.

Meanwhile, district officials keep insisting that, despite the horrible upset Reading Horizons has caused for many community members, the company’s phonics curriculum is as good as gold, and too important to scrap. 

Who will win out, the community or district officials? Tonight’s board meeting should provide an answer to this.

Creepy! CRPE “Study” Slams Minneapolis Public Schools, Falsely

October 11, 2015

Forget data driven decision-making. Our real problem might be agenda driven data gathering, accompanied by press release journalism.

The latest episode of this comes from–where else–CRPE, or the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Through slick packaging, loads of cash, and the sheen of expertise, University of Washington-based CRPE has been able to pass themselves off as a neutral, “Washington-based education group,” in the words of Minneapolis StarTribune education reporter Alejandra Matos.

Matos wrote a “Class Act” blog post for the StarTribune on October 7. It carried this shock-inducing headline:

Study: Less than 50 percent of Minneapolis students graduate high school

The scare tactic “study” that garnered this headline was crafted by CRPE. CRPE has an agenda; let’s be clear about that.

In May, I wrote an article about CRPE for the Progressive magazine. called, “The Secret Group That Wants to Take Over Your School.” I’m not saying my article should be required reading or anything, but…it does provide a questioning, easily available look at the origins and motives of CRPE. (The Minneapolis Public Schools is one of CRPE’s “portfolio” school districts, as detailed in the article I wrote., and thus receives direction and policy guidance from CRPE.)

Here’s an excerpt from the article, in which I compare CRPE to its more well-known partner in anti-democratic crime, ALEC:

…CRPE operates in a manner that is strikingly similar to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the secretive, powerful group funded by the Koch brothers and a large roster of corporations. Here’s a look at how the two organizations work: 

  1. Member networks: Both CRPE and ALEC have a “secret club” component, through their member networks. With ALEC, the members are state legislators. With CRPE, they are school districts from across the United States (there are currently thirty-nine of them).
  2. Network meetings: Both CRPE and ALEC host member network meetings or conferences, where a common philosophy (based on a distinct right-wing ideology) is honed, articulated, and shared.
  3. Model legislation: Both CRPE and ALEC create sample, model policies (CRPE) or “cookie-cutter bills” (ALEC) for the districts or legislators who are part of their member networks.
  4. Free-market funders: Like ALEC, CRPE is funded by very wealthy, free-market-focused special interests, including the Walton Foundation.

CRPE is a right-wing influenced group that promotes a pro-market-based education reform utopia, where islands of “high-performing,” test-driven schools will compete against one another for the best resources, teachers, students, and “results.”

To create a fertile ground for this utopian (or dystopian?) fantasy, CRPE needs to constantly dish up crisis-driven press releases, to show how shockingly failure-filled our public schools are. 

Exhibit A: Matos’ StarTribune blog post repeats–unchallenged–CRPE’s claim that “only 4 percent of all Minneapolis high school students took the ACT or SAT….”

Wait, what? Only 4 percent of Minneapolis high school students took the ACT or SAT? If ever a claim seemed ripe for a fact check, that would have to be it. 

And, a fact check, or at least a glimmer of one, did come, two days later, with a new blog post and a chastened headline:

Study of Minneapolis’ high school graduation rate is questioned

Good! But, the study probably should have been questioned–by somebody at the StarTribune–before it was passed off as news. I don’t necessarily blame the reporter, Matos, for this, because covering education today is a thankless, thorny job. And I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes. But…who is responsible for fact checking these beautifully packaged, crisis laden “studies”?

And, Matos’ writing shows growth from one CRPE blog post to the next. First, she described CRPE as nothing more than an “education group.” Upon further research and reflection, she included this description of them in her second post:

Minnesota education officials are raising questions about the methodology and the data used by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which advocates for charter schools and opposes teacher tenure rules.

Here is a brief look at the critiques leveled against CRPE’s wishful thinking data mashup, from Matos’ post:

  • “…there are some serious questions about the way the data was analyzed, and if it was accurate,” said Josh Collins, the Minnesota Department of Education spokesman. “It’s unclear to me if there are meaningful conclusions that could be drawn from it.”
  • “…the organization’s numbers for students taking college-placement tests were far lower than the state’s estimates. CRPE used self-reported data kept by the Office of Civil Rights.”
  • “In addition to the unreliable data, state officials question the organization’s decision to compare the number of students taking the exam with a school’s entire population, instead of just juniors and seniors, who are most likely to be taking college entrance tests.”

In its own defense, CRPE acknowledged this: “There is no ‘one perfect system.'”

That may be the one reliable conclusion they give us. (A second “revised results” press release from CRPE admits no wrongdoing on their part, but “regrets the confusion,” and thanks the StarTribune and the Minneapolis Public Schools for alerting CRPE to their own errors.)

Want to get a look at CRPE’s agenda? Read their study for yourself, and watch for these words:

Scorecards, benchmarks, data, choice, options, autonomy, measurements, math and reading,  proficiency, lowest-performing, failing, radical redesign

And be sure to read CRPE’s recommendations:

We urge cities to:

• Double down on bold, evidence-based solutions. Cities must be open to any promising school—district or charter—if it opens up new possibilities. City leaders must address their weaknesses head on and search widely for new solutions.

• Recognize that the hard work ahead cannot be the work of schools alone. Cities like Memphis and New Orleans that are radically redesigning their schools and school systems are seeing results, but even these efforts need continued, coordinated support from teacher preparation programs and social and health services.

They also need city and state leaders to support them when they have to make hard decisions—new leadership, turnaround, etc.—about failing schools.

This is the language of a school reform model rooted in capitalism, competition, and a race to the “top” (of…?). This is the language of outsiders who want to take over school systems, and apply social engineering, radical overhauls, and speedy, “results-oriented” pressure–but at whose expense?  And whose benefit?

Scary headlines, slick press releases, and faulty data, sloppily delivered, will not boost graduation rates in Minneapolis.

Lesson learned? Beware CRPE groups that seek to “weaponize our emotions” around education, for their own end game.

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Reading Horizons and the Minnesota Humanities Center: A tale of two reform models

October 7, 2015

Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Public Schools entered into a purchase agreement (contract would not be the right word) with Utah-based phonics and software producer Reading Horizons. 

All hell then broke loose, for reasons I have been documenting on this blog since August. One of those key reasons–beyond the racist, sexist, classist, etc., materials Reading Horizons provided–was the fact that “Faith” is listed as the number one “Core Value” of the for-profit company’s employees:

We believe in a higher purpose to life. We seek to do His will and to achieve balance in our lives.

Meanwhile, a few years ago, in a parallel universe that I definitely want to learn more about, the Omaha Public Schools entered into a long-term relationship with the non-profit Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC). They are still working together today.

Both school districts–Omaha and Minneapolis–have been seeking change, reform, and better outcomes for students, families, and staff, and both have had to grapple with potentially flood-inducing waves of changein terms of who they serve and how they serve them.

Parallel universes!

Both have been faced with a pressing choice: drown, or learn a new way to swim.

Here’s a study in contrasts: to survive, the Minneapolis Public Schools, has, among other things, chosen to do business with Reading Horizons, a company that many in the community have objected to–mightily.

The Omaha schools, on the other hand, appear to be putting the community at the forefront of their reform efforts, under the guidance of the MHC.

I find this fascinating, and worth watching. 

First, another similarity: both Reading Horizons and the MHC have a list of “Core Values” on their respective websites. Both put these values–either directly or obliquely–at the center of what they do.

Reading Horizons’ Core Values are personal, supposedly, and intended as a reflection of who their employees are. But faith, honesty, service, and so on, are also identified on the website as the “core values that best represent our company.”. Reading Horizons is not trying to hide–anymore, I guess–that they are a Christian company (with a seemingly strong connection to the Mormon church, but that’s for another blog post, or book).

Question: Do Reading Horizons’ Core Values have anything to do with the “promise” (and sales pitch) the company made to the Minneapolis Public Schools?  Here is that promise:

All MPS studenst (sic) will demonstrate higher levels of reading skill in grades K-3. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color will narrow across all grades. MCA reading scores in grades 3-10 will increase over time, presuming implementation of the Reading Horizons program with fidelity.

The goal is to get more Minneapolis kids reading at grade level. That’s an admirable and essential goal. And, the promise is that a product will get us there. The product comes first, then the practice (“with fidelity”), then the boost in reading scores and literacy rates. 

In contrast, the MHC’s Core Values are not personal, nor product based, but rather a short list for how the group approaches reform, as part of its overall “Education Strategy.” From the MHC webpage:

The Minnesota Humanities Center practices a relationship-based approach to engagement and achievement. The Strategy is about restoring relationships: to ourselves, to our students, to each other, to our communities, and to the places we live and work. By embracing and including the Absent Narratives that make up each of us and our communities, we can close the relationship gap of human understanding and empathy between us.

The Education Strategy is experienced through four core values:

  • Build and strengthen relationships;
  • Recognize the power of story and the danger of absence;
  • Learn from and with multiple voices; and
  • Amplify community solutions for change.

Ah! In the eyes of the MHC, what ails our public education system is not an achievement gap, but rather a “relationship gap.”

Think about the “achievement gap” in Minneapolis, and then consider MHC’s fourth core value:

“…the solutions to entrenched problems are in the community”

So…MHC seems to be saying this: solutions to entrenched problems cannot be purchased, nor do they come with a fidelity-based guarantee. Solutions must be discovered within, from the “multiple voices” in the community.

On Friday, October 2, I attended St. Paul-based Parents United’s annual Leadership Summit. Two presenters led the day–Kent Pekel, of the Search Institute, which studies how relationships impact learning, and MHC staff. Both Pekel and the MHC folks, led by CEO and President David O’Fallon, knocked the cynical socks off many of us in the audience, including several Minneapolis parents and community members. 

Fresh in many of our minds was the tension currently hanging over the Minneapolis Public Schools, with one school board meeting shut down (September 29), and the next one (October 13) facing a likely challenge as well, thanks to the district’s continued defense of its relationship with–not the public it serves–but Reading Horizons, the company it has paid to fix our gaps.

No one that I know wants the Minneapolis Public Schools destroyed (I did not say no one, I said no one I know). Most people want the district to survive and thrive, for the benefit not just of their own kids, but for the city as a whole. 

So, what if, in this moment of crisis, the Minneapolis schools did not push the community away, but instead asked to partner with them on identifying our “relationship gaps”? Could this be a way forward, for a district that seems to be struggling to provide both meaningful leadership and sustainable reform?

Shandi DiCosimo

Here’s how the MHC has been operating in Omaha, according to presenters O’Fallon, Rose McGee, and Shandi DiCosimo:

Rose McGee

  • The “single story” creates stereotypes, and robs people of dignity. It also emphasizes how we are different. The “achievement gap” is one example of a single story; it can come across as hollow, and an absence.
  • Instead, let people tell their own stories–of survival and success.
  • Be mindful of this: The only thing that sustains reform is when there is a belief in it, and when communities get to make it their own. It has to come from within.
  • Create story circles, where principals, teachers, and parents can talk, listen, and share stories. People can grow and become more respectful of one another’s voices.
  • Appreciate and value what happens outside of school. Understand where students live. Go on an “Immersion” field trip to the various communities in the city, with eyes wide open. Let parents share stories and bring content into the schools.
  • Recognize the human hunger for “place.” Understand that the question, “where do I belong?,” is central to the human experience.
  • Emphasize engagement over curriculum.
  • Operate on a “developmental evaluation” model, where it is known that the unexpected will happen, and adjustments (in approach) will need to be made.
  • Think about this: new narratives, a new vision, and a new story about education can take us forward.

Photo: Minnesota Humanities Center

And, my favorite lesson the MHC staff has learned in Omaha: Give students voice and power. To illustrate this, O’Fallon shared the story of an “alternative” high school within Omaha, which had become the dumping ground for all of the kids no one knew how to deal with. When MHC came in, with their “Absent Narratives” framework, they put the students to work.

The students–who said they had never before been asked for their perspective–ended up writing a handbook for first-year teachers, to give them tips on how to reach them. The handbook became so popular that it is now shared across the Omaha district, and the students have been asked to lead staff development workshops, too.

The answers lie within the community, not without.

What will happen next, between the Minneapolis schools and those who are asking for the district to sever its relationship with Reading Horizons? 

I don’t know. But, since this whole storm broke over the city, more than one person has sent me the link to Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In her 2009 talk, Adichie describes how “impressionable and vulnerable we are, in the face of a story, particularly as children.”

At Friday’s Leadership Summit, O’Fallon also shared Adichie’s Ted Talk. It’s worth watching, and, perhaps, applying to what confronts us now, in Minneapolis.

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